I had never seen an ox's ass up close before, and if you haven't either, let me spare you the experience. It's big—terrifyingly big—and makes me consider the Paul Bunyan legend in a wholly new way.
But a couple of Sundays ago at Anaheim's Phoenix Club, there it was, all huge and meaty, spinning on a spit the size of a flagpole and cooking over a coal bed that looked like leftovers from a volcanic eruption. This ass would be lunch for more than a thousand Germans.
The flame-licked flank was the main culinary draw at the Landestrachtenfest der Donauschwaben, a centuries-old cultural event held every three years for the ethnic Germans who settled along the Danube River in Hungary and the Balkans in the 1700s. The Landestrachtenfest was developed to preserve the old German traditions and culture, and it continues to this very day for American Donauschwaben, of which my Tante Anna is one.
This isn't some beer-drinking festival, either. Some 1,200 ethnic Germans from around the country (my Tante and her friends flew in from Detroit) and Canada converged on the Phoenix Club for some serious cultural bonding. The Sunday events I attended looked like an Olympic opening ceremony, with the Donauschwaben from the various cities parading around the grounds in their crisp ethnic threads. (Chicago brought the largest contingent.) Later in the day, young-adult teams competed in a song-and-dance competition, which was graded on deadly serious cultural terms. (The kids from Akron, Ohio, won again.)
I, however, came for the grub. While we Americans may think we've perfected it, Germans seem to have invented both the contemporary mindset and cuisine for the outdoor party. The most fleeting picture of our Herren and Frauen with food and drink in hand leads invariably to visions of Oktoberfest—biergarten,brat and pils, and oompah-pah. The Irish may have their day, but Germans take an entire monthfor song and fest. Stereotypes aside, they're rockin' fun folk.
So while the Donauschwaben attended an outdoor Mass at 10 a.m., food workers silently carved up the ox flank, fried potato pancakes and threw vast batches of bratwurst on sizzling grills. During Mass, a trickle of worshipers forsook the traditional communion wafer to follow the aromatic smoke to something a bit tastier.
God forgive me, I blew off Mass altogether and waited for the brats to cook. What the hot dog is to Americans, the bratwurst is to Germans. Put three Germans together in a kitchen, and the brats will be frying before you can say auf wiedersehen.
As with the hot dog, the bratwurst is far from the best sausage, but it's the industry standard. I have many fond memories involving steaming brat in bun, smothered in mustard, with beer in hand and ball game before me.
I am proud to say that I bought the first bratwurst of the day. The classic brat is fried in a pan (a loose translation of the word is "fry sausage"), and grilling it takes away some of its subtle flavor. But I passed on those sinful German pastries for this puppy, and cold bun aside, it more than satisfied. Since it cost only $3.75, being the good kid I am, I bought another one, but I passed on the bun.
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Mass ended, and my Tante and her friend Teresa took my folks and me to brunch at the Phoenix Club's Loreley Restaurant, which at night serves as one of the county's finest German restaurants. There was nothing ethnic about the omelets and fried potatoes, but I was impressed with the various schnitzels and sauerbraten on the dinner menu. Some of the Donauschwaben I talked to raved about the place, and I figure they know their stuff.
Back outside in the gathering heat, I couldn't bring myself to taste the ox. A big slab of its leg lay on the counter with a couple of butcher types hacking off pieces. Not very appealing. I overheard some Donauschwaben nibbling on ox pieces say that Babe was a bit dry and tasteless. That said, I moved onto the beer-drinking portion of the afternoon (a very tasty Bitburger pils), which left me dizzy in the heat while pondering the inevitable unanswerable question when attending events like these:
Why do German men insist on wearing knee-high socks with their shorts?
Phoenix Club's Loreley Restaurant, located at 1340 Sanderson Ave., Anaheim, is open daily, 11 a.m.-midnight. (714) 643-4166. Dinner for two, $15, food only. Beer and wine. Visa, MC and AmEx accepted.